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Political analysis and other daily rants on the state of the nation

Sunday | June 01, 2003

A theory of idiocy

A Theory of Everything

Hence, 9/11. This is where the story really gets interesting. Because suddenly, Puff the Magic Dragon a benign U.S. hegemon touching everyone economically and culturally turns into Godzilla, a wounded, angry, raging beast touching people militarily. Now, people become really frightened of us, a mood reinforced by the Bush team's unilateralism. With one swipe of our paw we smash the Taliban. Then we turn to Iraq. Then the rest of the world says, "Holy cow! Now we really want a vote over how your power is used." That is what the whole Iraq debate was about. People understood Iraq was a war of choice that would affect them, so they wanted to be part of the choosing. We said, sorry, you don't pay, you don't play.

"Where we are now," says Nayan Chanda, publications director at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization (whose Web site yaleglobal .yale.edu is full of valuable nuggets), "is that you have this sullen anger out in the world at America. Because people realize they are not going to get a vote over American power, they cannot do anything about it, but they will be affected by it."

Excuse me? I think 3,000 dead people put the lie to the idea that people are powerless to affect American power. Everyone gets a vote, one way or the other. The British have already pulled home 20,000 troops from Iraq. They are clearly not going to share the peacekeeping burden any more than they have to. And you can bet that's a vote.

Friedman's argument, that the US is a benign power, is so far from reality, so far from how the rest of the world sees us, as to defy belief. His argument is a theory of idiocy. American power can be helpful or corrosive, poisonous or life saving, but it is never, and has never been, benign.

Yes, many people think of Puff the Magic Dragon when they think of the US, mainly because Puff was the nickname for the AC-47 gunship first used in Vietnam. Not because they thought the US was a minor influence in their lives.
You can go around the world and get a list of US policy decisions which few Americans have ever heard of but changed lives, from helping the Indonesian Amry kill a million communists, to backing the most radical elements of the Afghan resistance, to helping to kill Patrice Lumumba, to assisting the Greek colonels to spraying coca fields with herbicide to sending Australian troops to Vietnam. Policy decisions made in Washington, noted on the pages of the New York Times and then ignored here while the people affected by them had their lives destroyed.

We like to think of ourselves as the good guys, a code embodied by the cowboy ethic of the west. Well that ethic was a myth created by writers who made an easy buck telling us fiction about life on the frontier. The real cowboy didn't shoot people, worked like a dog and like other physical laborers tried to quit before his body broke down. To think we benignly go around the world and help people or are seen as helpful is lunacy.

Our saving grace are our people and our ideas. Our people can be generous and kind and try to embrace a respect for others. Anyone can be an American, and that is to our credit. To be an American is a political choice, not just a birthright.

It isn't that people hate America or resent us as a people, they resent the use of our power. The way we use it, the reckless way we toss it about, expecting no reply or consequence for it. We assume our values are the only valid ones and reply in shock and amazement when we are told they are not.

For too long, we have forsaken our values for power and it has come to haunt us and our people. We are not only paying the price for it now, but we are seeking to impose our power with little regard for future consequence.

How do we manage dealing with our power? Simple. We act as first among many, not exempt from the rule of law and treaty.

Since Mr. Friedman wants opinions, I think the readers here are more than capable of delivering them to him: thfrie@nytimes.com

Steve Gilliard

Posted June 01, 2003 03:19 PM | Comments (61)


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